Three years after ending its military occupation of Iraq, the United States is waging war in the region again, this time in response to the dramatic rise of the fascistic jihadist organization calling itself the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIL or ISIS.
The IS has horrified the world with its gruesome execution videos, and the White House has seized the opportunity to present American imperialism as the “good guys” fighting evil, claiming to be saving thousands of endangered people from the IS onslaught. But its primary aim is imperialist: to prevent the IS from threatening states that the U.S. and its fellow imperialists rely on to keep the masses down. In the wake of its military and political failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. ruling class also hopes to reassert its sway in the Middle East. And it hopes to do so in a way that will cost little in terms of finances and casualties.
Most of the world understands that the U.S. has no moral authority to fight terrorism. It wages its own wars through terroristic means – bombings, shellings and drone attacks that slaughter civilians and combatants alike. And the Obama administration continued to support and re-arm Israel throughout its latest massacre of the defenseless people of Gaza. Moreover, the rise of the IS, like the growth of radical Islamist movements generally, is to a great extent blowback from imperialist policies of the U.S. – arming and aiding corrupt and brutal kings and dictators, supporting Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, funding and arming radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden’s jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980’s – all in an effort to dominate the Middle East in the interest of controlling its oil and trade routes.
Three years ago the Arab world’s exploited and oppressed millions rose up in a series of popular revolutions against the region’s rulers. But none of those uprisings found a revolutionary socialist leadership ready to show the way to liberation – the overthrow of capitalist rule and the conquest of power by the working class. Instead, the mass uprisings have suffered a variety of defeats, and the old forces of dictatorship have returned with a vengeance.
The rise of the IS in Iraq and Syria is also a product of these defeats and the efforts by capitalist forces in the region to fund and encourage reactionary Islamist forces as agents in the battle for control of the region. And now the forces of the old, brutal military dictatorships – from Assad in Syria to Sisi in Egypt – are claiming legitimacy as supposedly the only force that can repress the radical Islamists and maintain order.
In dark days like these, revolutionary socialists have the duty to face reality squarely, to offer no false solutions and to promote a perspective of struggle in defense of the masses’ lives and democratic rights, and against imperialism. Our goal as always is to advance the struggle for the working-class–led socialist revolutions that alone can put an end to the violence and poverty that plagues the region. We explain below how we think a revolutionary perspective must tactically take into account the alignment of forces on the ground and the most immediate threats. But most fundamentally, working people must recognize that the imperialist powers are the greatest enemies of humanity. Their domination and super-exploitation of peoples everywhere, with the cooperation of local capitalist powers, is the major obstacle to the workers and oppressed of the world overthrowing their rulers and building a new world of freedom and abundance for all.
Just a few years ago, the forces at the core of the IS, which then styled themselves as Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, had suffered crippling defeats and were in retreat. They had first come to prominence during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. They preached a virulent hatred of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority whom they branded infidels, along with the country’s other non-Sunni religious minorities and Iraq’s more secular Kurdish people – all of whom they targeted with a reign of murderous terror.
But the jihadists’ methods alienated the Sunni masses. The U.S., eager to end its costly occupation of Iraq, encouraged local bourgeois Sunni forces to turn against them and cooperate with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad; the Sunni collaborators were promised that their militias would be integrated into the country’s security forces and that they would be provided a share of the country’s oil wealth. But no sooner were the jihadists defeated and marginalized then the new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, betrayed these promises and turned to open religious sectarianism to buttress his rule; he sent the overwhelmingly Shiite armed forces into northern Iraq as a brutal occupying force. Inspired by the Arab revolutions, a mass movement of peaceful protest rose up primarily among the Sunnis but was met with deadly repression by Maliki. So the Sunni masses increasingly saw the IS as an evil lesser than Maliki.
Retreating in Iraq, the IS took advantage of the popular uprising against the Assad dictatorship in Syria to move into areas which the dictatorship had lost control of. From the outset of the uprising, Assad did everything possible to encourage the spread of jihadists as a counter to the secular democratic revolutionary forces and as an excuse for massive repression. While he waged a relentless war against the democratic forces, he released thousands of jihadists from his prisons and did nothing to stop more from entering the country – whereupon they waged their own war not against Assad but against the popular revolution itself. With funding from independent capitalists in the Gulf states, the jihadists were able to seize control of much of northeastern Syria. They then moved back into Iraq in force. The state institutions and armed forces of the Maliki regime collapsed wherever it was confronted by an IS-led Sunni uprising. Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, was conquered by the IS on June 10.
The IS has now declared the borders between Iraq and Syria to be void and the territories under its control to be a single Caliphate or Islamic State. It has celebrated its new-found power with a rampage of murderous violence. It has executed en masse soldiers who surrendered; expelled or killed religious minorities who refused to convert to the IS’s extreme brand of Sunni Islam; broadcast videos of the beheading of captive American and British journalists and aid workers; and threatened a holy war against Iraq’s more secular Kurds and its Shiite majority.
While the IS demands that the masses under its rule submit to its version of Islam and pledge allegiance to their “Caliph,” Abu Bakr Baghdadi, it is simultaneously pursuing the very earthly goals of capitalist profiteering and business deals with neighboring states. It is already earning an estimated $3 million a day from a variety of enterprises. Exploitation of oil is now central to its operations: in Syria, it has signed lucrative deals with the Assad regime to supply it with oil from the fields it controls and it is now seeking to cash in on its seizure of oil fields in Iraq.
We have noted that the rise of the IS was stimulated by imperialist oppression. But this particularly oppressive force is only an extreme example of the region’s sectarianism, whose growth capitalism has long sponsored. Encouraging religious identification was always a favored means of the European colonialists to divide and conquer the masses. And since the downturn in the world capitalist economy of the mid-1970’s, nominally nationalist rulers like the Assads in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq faced a diminished ability to make concessions and maintain broad patronage networks; so they increasingly turned to privileging their religious sects in order to stabilize their rule. Even Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which not long ago enjoyed adulation for its defeat of Israel’s 2006 invasion, has exposed itself as nothing but a Shiite sectarian party fighting to keep its share of power and wealth in Lebanon; it has sent forces into Syria to conduct sectarian massacres on behalf of Assad. And the Gulf monarchies, whom the West has relied on as stable guarantors of the region’s oil wealth, have long seen the activities of radical Islamist groups as an essential means to prevent the workers and poor from uniting against them.
In the past few months, the U.S. has staged bombing runs and sent surveillance drones and Special Operations forces to halt advances by the IS in Iraq. As we write, it has extended its air strikes into Syrian territory. And although Obama has rejected the idea of sending in American “boots on the ground,” several military officials and prominent politicians have asserted that ground forces will be necessary to defeat the IS.
The current stepped-up campaign is not something that the Obama administration has sought. It would have preferred to manage U.S. interests in the Middle East with a minimal military intervention, so as to avoid the financial and political costs of war – even if that meant reduced American influence. It needed to concentrate on longer-term challenges like asserting its power in Asia in the face of China’s rise, and limiting Russia’s imperialist power in Eastern Europe. Until now Washington was satisfied to allow the IS’s forces to grow in Syria, as long as they spent most of their time attacking the democratic revolutionary forces; and it accepted Maliki’s corrupt and brutally sectarian regime as long as it maintained order. Once engaged, however, it may find that it cannot avoid an even greater participation.
Opposition to the IS broadly resonates among other world powers. France has joined the bombing campaign in Iraq, Germany has promised military aid, and Britain is debating an active intervention. China and Russia are on board with support for U.N. Security Council resolutions against the IS in Iraq.
The U.S. tilt is also favorable to Shiite and Kurdish elites in Iraq, and even to Sunni elements alarmed by the brutality and power-grabbing of the IS. This support makes the U.S. role even more dangerous: it can fool people on the ground as well as leftists internationally who normally oppose imperialist policy. This deception will reinforce an imperialist presence that has been largely responsible for the tragic situation in the region to begin with.
Imperialism’s best hope for combating the IS now would be to restore the Sunnis and Kurds to a share of power in Baghdad so that Sunni forces would turn against the IS. To this end Washington engineered the ouster of Maliki from power and the installment of Haidar al al-Abadi as Prime Minister, in the hope that he would make concessions to Kurdish and Sunni bourgeois figures to secure their support. Given the past record, it is hard to believe that this expanded imperialist re-intervention will not again turn, as bourgeois forces inevitably must, to supporting sectarian forces that would end up re-creating the scene that allowed the IS to gain power.
In Syria, U.S. imperialism and its Israeli allies have long wanted to oust Assad in order to end his regime’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, which has enabled Hezbollah to limit Zionist aggression beyond the Occupied Territories. But the Western imperialists have feared Syria’s popular revolutionary uprising far more, because of its potential to advance the struggle against dictatorship and imperialism throughout the region. Thus they have stood by while Assad, armed by Russian imperialism and Iran, slaughtered hundreds of thousands in his counterrevolutionary war, far more than the IS has killed; they have refused to arm even secular democratic rebel forces because they could not trust them to serve their interests; and they have until now refused to clamp down on support for jihadists as long as they were acting primarily to divide and weaken revolutionary forces.
The U.S. has hoped that continued popular resistance would force Assad to accept a negotiated solution that would leave the regime’s repressive state apparatus intact but would replace the dictatorship’s current leadership with a coalition of forces, including Sunni bourgeois forces more favorable to the West. Washington’s new wave of bombing jihadist forces will aim to serve this end.
Despite its humanitarian pretense, imperialist militarism is never a force for good. Any short-term practical benefits for oppressed peoples serve as a cover and buttress for imperialism’s fundamentally repressive role. If there are any benign effects, they will become increasingly buried under oppressive and reactionary ones. Already U.S. air strikes have killed civilians among populations already suffering under IS rule, and there is no reason to think the U.S. will not also target leftist and democratic forces among Arabs and Kurds in the region. Revolutionaries must oppose the U.S.-led attack on the IS and recognize that every defeat suffered by imperialists, especially the U.S., weakens their ability to suppress the struggles of the workers and oppressed everywhere.
At the same time, revolutionary opposition to imperialism cannot ignore events on the ground. An imperialist intervention can be a factor in temporarily saving innocent and oppressed people from onslaught. For example, to advocate firing on jets taking out IS units that are directly threatening civilians would subject those people to immediate slaughter by IS; it could also invite retaliation by American forces that the people in acute danger have no means to defend against. This scenario parallels similar ones in Libya in 2011 and Mali in 2013. In any case, the tactic of local forces holding fire against imperialist forces in a situation of acute threat from an immediate enemy remains subordinate to our opposition to imperialist intervention overall.
The growing carnage in the region cries for a solution that cannot be supplied by its capitalist rulers, the “anti-imperialist” reactionaries or the imperialist would-be saviors. Only workers’ revolution in the Middle East and internationally can provide the basis for even the beginnings of a real solution. Central to revolutionary work in the region must be to encourage the organizing of the masses across lines of sectarian division and in self-defense against all their immediate threats. Such organization for self-defense can provide the basis for struggles against all local capitalist forces and the imperialists who stand behind them.
Much of the far left internationally will likely be disoriented by Obama’s offensive. Some will refuse to address the tactical situation by resorting to abstract sloganeering against imperialist military actions. Others will tacitly support Obama by hesitating to oppose the U.S.’s intervention, out of fear of disrupting its “humanitarian” goals. Yet others, the “anti-imperialists” who regard U.S. imperialism as the only true enemy, will either echo Assad’s request that the U.S. coordinate its bombing in Syria with his regime or simply ignore his tacit approval.
Within the Middle Eastern and North African countries themselves, we take note of the June 28 “Statement by Revolutionary Marxist and Socialist Organizations in the Region: For a Revolutionary Secular Democratic Sovereign and Independent Iraq.” With all due respect to comrades who bravely work under terrible conditions of oppression, we must say that the statement provides serious misguidance.
Written by the Union of Iraqi Communists and co-signed by the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt, the Revolutionary Left Current of Syria, al-Munadhil-a of Morocco, the Leftist Workers’ League of Tunisia and the Socialist Forum of Lebanon, the statement correctly put forward a perspective of struggle against all sectarian forces in Iraq and makes many commendable proposals such as the call for “the self-organization of people in the cities, slums, and villages in armed popular committees and councils, to counter the attacks of obscurantist terrorist organizations and all the opposing confessional [sectarian] militias.” Revolutionaries should salute these strong points and see in them the potential to build a genuinely revolutionary perspective.
However, this statement’s truths are undermined by glaring weaknesses. Expressing itself in the populist language of uniting “the people” in struggle for democratic aims, the statement does not offer a perspective of working-class–led struggle against capitalism, and for socialism as the only alternative to sectarianism and imperialism. A particularly grievous error was the statement’s failure to call for the right of self-determination of the Kurds, a people oppressed by the regimes in Iran, Syria and Turkey as well as Iraq. At a time when Kurdish forces have been the main source of resistance to the IS, revolutionaries should recognize that a fighting unity against the IS can only be achieved with the promise of a struggle for the full rights of the oppressed.
Worst was the statement’s ambivalence on the question of foreign intervention. Here is a paragraph that starts out well but ends disastrously:
All types of intervention in Iraqi affairs by the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and others must be rejected, as they are not only completely incompatible with the interests of the people of Iraq, but also fuel the fire of a terrible confessional war. We call on the UN General Assembly, in particular, to hold all countries accountable for their intervention in this situation and subject them to sanctions, according to the Uniting for Peace mechanism.
Thus the statement’s opposition to the intervention of imperialists and local dictatorships is immediately undermined by its call for action by the U.N. General Assembly. This is a serious violation of fundamental socialist principles. The Assembly is a collection of representatives of the world’s capitalist ruling classes who act only to preserve their own power to exploit and oppress. Moreover, the Security Council is controlled by the major imperialist powers and China, and will only allow proposals from the General Assembly to be carried into action if they are consistent with imperialist interests. The “Uniting for Peace” option that the statement calls for, which allows the General Assembly to vote on military interventions, was devised in 1950 to endorse the U.S.-led imperialist intervention in the Korean War.
We know that many if not all of the groups which signed the statement are opposed to the U.S. military’s attacks. The Syrian Revolutionary Left Current in particular has bravely opposed calls for Western intervention, despite the massive popular pressure for it in the face of the Assad dictatorship’s brutality, and they have recently repeated that anti-imperialist stand in response to Obama’s most recent attacks. Nonetheless, it is especially important that revolutionaries in the oppressed countries not give the imperialists any excuse to intervene in the countries they dominate and exploit. The comrades of the Union of Iraqi Communists surely want to oppose such imperialist interventions, but their call for action by the U.N. could easily provide cover for precisely this.
Indeed, of all countries on earth, surely Iraq has been the victim of the United Nations enough to teach any would-be revolutionary to oppose it. The U.N. sponsored Washington’s first war against Iraq in 1991; even Fidel Castro’s Cuban government voted to abstain on the murderous sanctions that led to the deaths of a million Iraqis. And it was the U.N.’s program to limit possession of “weapons of mass destruction” to the hands of trusted great powers that provided the pretext for Washington’s second murderous invasion in 2003.
At this time of ascendant counterrevolution, there is the danger that working-class revolutionaries will turn in desperation to supporting bourgeois forces or justifying imperialist interventions. We have already seen several examples of this in recent years. When Libya’s popular revolution was threatened with attack in Benghazi by the forces of Qaddafi’s tyrannical dictatorship, a prominent figure of the socialist left, Gilbert Achcar, and others argued against opposing NATO’s intervention. Achcar then launched a slanderous campaign against anti-interventionist supporters of the revolution, labeling us as having “little care for the people” and even suggesting a specific “Eurocentric indecency.”
And in Egypt, the Revolutionary Socialists lurched from one discrediting electoral debacle to another in the face of counterrevolution, exposing their lack of attachment to principles of working-class independence. In the first post-Mubarak presidential elections they called upon people to vote for the candidate of the religious-sectarian bourgeois Muslim Brotherhood rather than support the boycott movement. In the second, they called for a vote for Sisi’s loyal opponent, the Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi, despite the fact that Sabbahi had been a key conspirator in Sisi’s coup and supported the general’s massacres of peaceful Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The latter position was immediately exposed by the mass abstention from voting, which showed that millions of working-class and poor people had no illusions in Sabbahi as an alternative to Sisi.
Such examples underscore the need for fighting for fundamental revolutionary principles – unbending opposition to the “right” of the imperialists to intervene in the oppressed countries, and a relentless insistence on working-class independence from and hostility to all political parties of the bourgeoisie.
1. For more on the U.S. role in Syria, see the LRP bulletin Defend the Syrian Revolution Against All its Enemies – Imperialism, Assad and Reactionary Islamists!.
2. See our statements against these imperialist interventions: Down with the Imperialist Intervention in Libya!; Down with the Imperialist Intervention in Mali!.
3. For a Revolutionary Secular Democratic Sovereign and Independent Iraq
4. U.S. Imperialism – Hands Off Korea! (2013)
5. Posted on September 23, 2014 at syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/.
6. See “We had the Honor to ... Abstain” (originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 39 (Spring 1991), with the article Cuba Faces U.S. Threat: “Socialism in One Country No Answer”.
7. For our comment, see Down with the Imperialist Intervention in Libya!. Achcar’s responses are at Popular Rebellion and Imperialist Designs; and The People Want, Ch. 6, fn. 29, p. 273.
8. Revolutionary Socialists’ statement on Egypt’s presidential elections
9. Statement by the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists on the presidential elections 27 April 2014